Like many others personal trainers, I often hear clients say that “getting toned” is their main fitness goal. Whether they realize it or not, what these people actually mean is body recomposition: the act of changing your physique through fat burning and muscle gain at the same time. This requires a different approach to health and fitness than the typical one thinking about losing weight.

Many people believe that true body recomposition is impossible because of this conundrum: To reduce body fat, you must eat less calories than you burn. But yes building muscle, you need to take in more calories than you burn. However, your body is smarter than you give it credit for watch your diet carefully (specifically when what you eat) and your training, you can absolutely lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. (Ready to hit the gym? Make sure you get the best pair of shoes, the best wedges and the best headphones for your workout.)

Read more: The ultimate guide to counting and tracking macronutrients

Body composition refers to your body fat percentage and lean mass percentage.

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What is body composition?

Your body composition is the ratio of fat mass to lean mass in your body. Body composition is sometimes used interchangeably with body fat percentage, but body fat percentage is only one part of your overall body composition.

Lean mass includes muscle, bone, ligaments, tendons, organs, other tissues, and water — in other words, everything that isn’t body fat. Depending on the method you use to measure your body composition, you may see water as your own percentage.

How about body recomposition?

Body recomposition refers to the process of changing the ratio of fat mass to lean mass – that is, losing body fat and gaining muscle mass. The goal of body recomposition is fat loss and muscle gain at the same time, unlike the traditional “bulk and cut” approach where you deliberately gain weight first (muscle and fat) and then go through an intense caloric deficit to lose the fat and reveal the muscle underneath.

Hands holding measuring tape

When body recomposition is your goal, ditch the scale and use a tape measure to get a better idea of ​​your progress.

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Forget about losing weight

Body recomposition is not associated with weight loss; it’s about fat loss. With a body recomposition plan, you may maintain your current weight or even gain weight – remember hearing that “muscle weighs more than fat”? This is half true. Muscle is denser than fat.

During body recomposition, what changes instead of weight is your physique. As you progress through your body recomposition, you may notice changes in your body, such as an overall tighter appearance or that your clothes fit differently. You may even gain weight, but have a smaller physique, at the end of your body recomposition program.

For example, now I weigh exactly the same as before I started exercising and eating healthy. I wear smaller clothes though and my body has more muscle tone than before. I also feel much stronger than before I started a strength training program (a non-aesthetic benefit for body recomposition). So you can discard the scalebecause it does not distinguish between fat loss and muscle loss, and weight loss is not the main goal in body recomposition.

However, there is one caveat to keep in mind: if you want to lose a large amount of body fat and don’t intend to gain a lot of muscle mass, you may end up losing weight in the long run.

Body recomposition is a long game

Since you’re trying to do two things at once—lose fat and gain muscle—you can’t treat a body recomposition plan as fad diet. Healthy weight loss and healthy muscle gain take a long time on their own: put them together and you’re in it for the long haul. However, the slow, steady process of body recomposition offers sustainable results, so you’ll enjoy your new physique while maintaining these habits.

Collage of exercise equipment and healthy foods

Body recomposition is a fine balance between building muscle and losing fat.

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How does body recomposition work?

Body recomposition really comes down to your specific health and fitness goals. Unlike traditional weight loss methods—like very low-calorie diets or periods of really intense cardio—there’s no real protocol for body recomposition.

There are basic guidelines to follow. To successfully change your body composition, you must:

How to lose fat

Fat loss ultimately comes down to calorie maintenance. To lose fat, you need to take in fewer calories than you burn. Cardiovascular exercise, or a combination of cardio and resistance exercise along with a healthy diet, is still the best technique for fat loss—there’s just no way around the science. Losing fat safely and sustainably also means having realistic goals and not depriving your body of the nutrients it needs – disturbed eating habits they are never worth the risk.

Photo of a weight rack in a gym

Building muscle requires resistance training.

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How to build muscle

To build muscle, focus on two main factors: weight training and protein consumption. Strength training is essential to changing your body composition – your muscles won’t grow if you don’t challenge them.

Also, you can’t build muscle without being in a caloric surplus, so you need to take in more calories than you burn to promote muscle growth. While everyone macronutrients are important, protein is especially important for building muscle. Without enough protein, your body will struggle to repair muscle tissue that is broken down during weight training.

Additionally, studies show that a A high protein diet can help you lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. A study shows that while in a calorie deficit, eating more protein than usual can help preserve your lean body mass (also known as muscle mass) than being in a calorie deficit without changing your protein intake.

In people who have already followed a strength training program, increasing their protein intake and following a heavy weight lifting routine leads to improvements in body composition.

A person doing a shoulder press

Bodybuilders are known for their ability to achieve incredibly lean and muscular physiques. It’s obviously not everyone’s goal, but it’s a good example of what’s possible with body recomposition.

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Put it all together: the calorie cycle

It sounds confusing that you need to eat fewer calories than you burn to lose fat, but you need to eat more calories than you burn to build muscle. It’s actually pretty simple once you learn about the concept of calorie cycling: modifying your calorie and macronutrient intake to match your goal for the day.

The first thing you need to do is figure out your maintenance calories, or how many calories you burn on a non-exercise day. You can see a certified personal trainer, nutritionist, or other health professional to find this number, or you can use an online calorie calculator. This one from the Mayo Clinic uses Mifflin-St. Geor’s equationwhich professionals consider the gold standard.

On the days you do cardio, you should be eating enough calories to reach your maintenance number. Eating maintenance calories on a cardio day ensures that you are in a slight deficit to promote fat loss, but not in such a deficit that your body starts using muscle tissue for fuel. We want the muscles!

Read more: Cardio before or after lifting weights: Which is better for weight loss?

On days you do a strength training workout of 30 minutes or more, eat more calories than you maintain by focusing on protein. Depending on how much muscle you want to gain and how quickly you want to gain it, add 5% to 15% to your maintenance calories.

On days you don’t exercise at all, eat a little less than your maintenance calories—drop that number by 5% to 10%. This number is called your “weekend calories.”

Graphic breakdown of weekly activity and nutrition

A weekly plan to achieve your body recomposition goals.

Graphic by Amanda Caprito/CNET

Think of it this way: every day you take in new calories and your body has to decide what to do with those calories. Your body essentially has three main choices: immediately burn the calories for fuel, use them to repair and build muscle tissue, or store them as fat.

If you’re looking for body transformation, you don’t want to store calories as fat. But you want your body to use new calories to rebuild the muscles you destroyed during weight training.

So you’ll be taking in more calories (and protein) on weight training days so that your body uses those calories and nutrients to fuel muscle repair and thus muscle growth. And you’ll eat fewer calories on cardio days and non-workout days because you want your body to use the fat it already has for fuel, not use new calories for fuel.

By combining these two tactics, you can successfully achieve body recomposition.

More about your fitness

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.

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